This review is the fourth of a short series of blogs covering ‘old favourites’, the sort of gear that not only works superbly, but is durable and reliable for any adventure. These reviews aim to select non-specialist, but in my opinion, superb pieces of equipment that will work for most people, in most conditions.
The Lowe Alpine Powerstretch Balaclava is a garment that, like the baselayer I reviewed in the last blog, is a humble but mighty tool. Now that Lowe Alpine have discontinued their line of accessories to focus on backpacks, this little number could be a lasting relic from the brand’s tactical armoury. I however am unconcerned by how it looks as I’m a fully signed up member of the balaclava fan club. In my opinion balaclavas are one the most under-rated and overlooked pieces of outdoor equipment that everyone should own.
I am prepared to admit at this stage that as a child I was forced to wear a balaclava, such scars run almost as deep as the harrowing memory of its mega-scratchy arran wool material. I then progressed to winter mountaineering with my Dad and as a rite of passage was issued with an early-1980s stretchy damart balaclava, the closest modern equivalent of which is the Helly Hansen Dry Balaklava – which at an RRP of £12.00 is a contemporary bargain. I had my damart balaclava for about a decade and at its point of demise I had become an independent man of means, free of the shackles of parental headwear choice and decided that the logical balaclava to choose was an expensive windstopper membraned piece. This was not an illogical line of reasoning bearing in mind that most balaclava users deploy their secret weapon most frequently when it is windy and/or cold. Many Scottish winter walkers and climbers are aficionados of such headwear and with good reason – it’s often windy as hell! Despite my reasoning, the windstopper balaclava was an epically disappointing garment. Windstopper fails as a material for balaclavas for the following reasons: it doesn’t stretch well, it isn’t breathable enough, it doesn’t insulate well and most critically you can’t hear a single thing! The result is a balaclava that has gaps around the face that the wind sneaks into (the irony!), is clammy and is deafening. I replaced this quickly with a powerstretch balaclava and it is THE answer.
Powerstretch is a material like pertex that is phenomenally effective for serious outdoor use; it is effectively a fleece on steroids. It is hugely stretchy, has a ridiculous warmth to weight ratio, is very durable, and crucially for me stays warm when wet. For those yet to try powerstretch, buy a small item (balaclava anyone?) and you’ll be converted. Lowe Alpine have crafted this balaclava well and to me it’s only flaw is that it could do with being about another 4 inches longer, so that it stays tucked in when you have it pulled over your nose and mouth as you march into the full fury of a Cairngorm blizzard with your ski goggles on. A few years ago I made the discovery that if I taped up the ventilation holes on my climbing helmet in winter and wore it thus modified with a balaclava, the howling noise of the wind was diminished. The comfort of having something warm wrapped tight round your face when it is pouring with spindrift as you’re edging up some ‘classic’ Scottish ice gully is a psychological boost worth every penny of its cost.
As an outdoor instructor I carry a balaclava in my bag wherever I go and have frequently used it on windy mountain walks, post-canoe capsizes or after injury to calm and warm clients, especially children. Talking of children…of course I make all four of my kids wear (Lowe Alpine Powerstretch) balaclavas when they’re out playing in winter. The only earache we get in our family is over who gets to wear the solitary bright red ‘limited edition’ one!
If you can ignore the looks you get from passers-by, these garments are suitable for a huge range of outdoor actvities. I wear mine rolled down as a ‘power scarf’ (might copyright that name) or rolled up as a err…’power hat’. They’re versatile, cheap, durable and add warmth and confidence in some seriously extreme situations. Try one and leave being ‘cool’ behind! See you out there gang….